This weekend, we in the Oregon Symphony have the great privilege of sharing our stage with Hilary Hahn, one of the leading violinists of our time. The orchestra has been abuzz since her first rehearsal with us – with utterances such as “perfection”, “sublime”, “gorgeous”, and “stunning” flying about in our social media feeds, as well as in our backstage chatter (yes, we, like you in the lobby at intermission, talk about what’s happened in the first half, both good and bad). There’s no doubt about it, Hilary is an almost incomparable artist. People bring up legendary artists such as Heifetz and Milstein in conversations that involve her playing, and that is not hyperbolic. What is it that makes her playing so special, you might ask. Well, I’m going to try to answer that question.
There is this myth that certain violinists, Heifetz especially, played everything perfectly. They came really close, but at a certain point, it is an illusion, much like the creation of a legato melodic line on a piano – it’s not really possible to do, but you can make it seem like it’s actually happening. There is such a focused intensity of Hahn’s concentration that is quite unique to her, it seems. I think it can be sensed from the audience, too, but especially from my vantage point (lucky me) of just about 10 feet away. She is so keenly aware of everything that is happening at every instant, especially involving her use of the bow, which results in a tone that is at once lively and burnished; vibrant and seamless. In rehearsals, I’ve never heard a blemish in her sound – which is relatively common to hear in some of our other violin soloists, no matter how accomplished, up to and including such greats as Perlman and Zukerman.
Her left hand technique is also nearly faultless. There was a moment in the dress rehearsal, in the last movement cadenza to the Nielsen Violin Concerto, where there was ONE note, which was ever so slightly off center in terms of its pitch, and this look crossed her face in a fleeting moment that said “this will not happen again”. It didn’t. Her vibrato is so focused and consistent, it is an essential and inseparable part of her sound. She never uses it to the point of affectation, but rather like a great bel canto singer might – seamlessly and in service to the arching, long line of the melody. Hahn’s approach, overall, is decidedly old school. She doesn’t engage in histrionics onstage. She does move, sometimes quite a lot, but she seldom makes faces. And above all, she plays with a deeply probing musicianship that brings light to both established warhorses and hidden nooks and crannies of the repertoire alike. Her last appearance with the Oregon Symphony featured the Tchaikovsky concerto, and hearing her play that piece was like hearing it anew after countless variations on the Galamian/DeLay interpretation that one hears so often from the previous generation of American trained violinists. So, too, it is with the Nielsen. I was not familiar with the work before beginning rehearsals, but she makes a convincing argument for it as a piece that deserves to be heard more often on the concert stage. There really could be no more devoted advocate for the work than she.
Then, there was the encore. The Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in d minor, BWV 1004. Played with such tenderness, control, and deep musicality. Time stood still for the nearly 2,000 people in the audience, and especially for those of us on stage. I just closed my eyes as the first notes sounded, knowing that this was going to be a transportive musical experience. And it was. This brief movement, a paramount expression of musical perfection – no one has ever come close to composing music this perfect, I would argue, and perhaps no one ever will – was a timeless expression of everything that makes the world’s great music great. It expresses the inexpressible. It goes where language cannot. It encapsulates all emotions for everyone who listens in that moment: joy, love, heartache, anger, sadness, grief. They are all there in every note that Bach has written, and especially so in this greatest of his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. What was so great about the performance? The music just flowed from her. It wasn’t imposed, it just came out of her and to us through her violin with seemingly little filtration or adulteration. It just was. And that, to me, is perfection.
“Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic – one can’t fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.”
—Hilary Hahn, Saint Paul Sunday